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Mountain News: Snowmobilers died high-marking

KETCHUM, Idaho - Yet more evidence arrives that all the tools in the world might not save you if caught in an avalanche. Snowmobilers both in Idaho and British Columbia died in recent weeks, and the stories were remarkably similar.

KETCHUM, Idaho - Yet more evidence arrives that all the tools in the world might not save you if caught in an avalanche. Snowmobilers both in Idaho and British Columbia died in recent weeks, and the stories were remarkably similar.

In the Idaho case, a 38-year-old snowmobiler was high-marking in the mountains north of Sun Valley, seeing how far up a steep slope he could go before being forced by gravity to turn around. The avalanche left him buried under seven to 10 feet of snow.

Three of his companions observed the avalanche, and were able to pick up the signal from his beacon within minutes. All were equipped with snow shovels and probe poles. They also had a satellite phone, and one of them was an emergency medical technician.

Still, because of how compacted the snow became in the avalanche, it took them at least 20 minutes to reach the victim. The county coroner said the man died of asphyxiation. He leaves behind two children and a wife.

In Canada, along the Continental Divide in the Monashee Range, a 24-year-old snowmobiler had reached nearly the apex of a steep-faced, above-timberline slope when he triggered an avalanche. He had been among 10 snowmobilers who had spent several hours high-marking on the slope.

The Edmonton Journal says that despite avalanche beacons and probes, it took his companions 30 minutes to locate and excavate the victim from under more than six feet of snow.

"Snow is pretty wild stuff. It will pack in around you quite tight. People lose the ability to literally expand their chest to breath," said Greg Johnson, an avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Association.

With this death, 25 people had died in avalanches in Canada for the season, 19 of them snowmobilers. The total is the highest since 2003, when 29 were killed.

Avalanche wipes out caribou

BANFF, Alberta - Caribou are nearly gone from Banff National Park. There was just a handful, perhaps four or five. But a recent avalanche killed three of them.

Even before the avalanche, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook , biologists had doubted the caribou herd would survive unless it could be connected to other populations of caribou. However, caribou are declining throughout their historic ranges in both Alberta and British Columbia for reasons that are not well understood.

Tourists looking for adventure?

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Operators of the Crested Butte ski area are looking to create an adventure park at the base of the ski slopes.

Being talked about in the potential $1 million project are a 28-foot freestanding climbing wall with 360 degrees of climbing features and six belay stations. Also under consideration is what is described as a Euro-bungee trampoline, where both kids and adults can jump on a trampoline while affixed to a large bungee cable.

Also in the works; an improved tubing hill, and ice skating rink of either natural or synthetic surface.

The goal, said Ken Stone, the ski company's chief operating officer, is to encourage visitors to linger at Crested Butte longer.

Such family-oriented non-skiing amusements have been the trend at ski resorts since the 1990s, when Vail - having studied trends in Europe - introduced its top-of-the-gondola Adventure Ridge.

The Crested Butte News says the ski area operator is working with the local municipality, Mt. Crested Butte, on a funding partnership.

Lovins named an agent of change

OLD SNOWMASS, Colo. - Amory Lovins was the only discernible individual from ski country to be named in Rolling Stone Magazine's "100 Agents of Change."

The magazine cited energy guru Lovins, who is based in an exurban outpost about 15 miles from Aspen, for his work with Wal-Mart to reduce energy use. The magazine said the next move for Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute is to help get cities ready to meet Obama's goal of one million plug-in cars by 2015.

Others on the list included politicians, entertainers, move-makers, writers, and technologists.

Park City stays open extra week

PARK CITY, Utah - In March, the snow was looking marginal. Then came the storms - enough that Park City Mountain Resort decided to extend the season for a week past Easter. There were just enough hotel bookings, about 14 per cent of capacity, to justify the extension, but The Park Record suggests a more compelling reason may have been goodwill for the local community. It's spring break for local schools.

Flushing the toilet is just the start

JACKSON, Wyo. - When people think of electrical use, they commonly think of lights, maybe their computers, and perhaps their refrigerator. In fact, water - moving it, purifying it, and then treating the sewage - is one of the largest sources of electrical use in any community.

In California, according to one study several years ago, water is involved in 19.6 per cent of all electrical use. That includes the giant pumping necessary to get water from the Sacramento area to Southern California.

But even in mountain valleys, water is a big part of electrical use. When the city of Jackson and Teton County two years ago studied electrical use, water - mostly from the sewage treatment plant - was responsible for 20 per cent of use.

Now, with federal stimulus money beginning to spread out, there may be federal help, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide . Energy officials believe that a retrofit could reduce electrical consumption at the sewage treatment plant by 40 per cent, saving the community $100,000 a year. Cost of the upgrade, however, has not been calculated.

Already, the community has installed 25-kilowatt solar panels at the sewage-treatment plant, and it is now seeking federal stimulus funding for another 90 kilowatts.

Hockey player to undergo counseling

SUN VALLEY, Idaho - A 52-year-old woman has agreed to undergo counseling and donate $1,000 to a junior hockey program for having clubbed an opposing player in a coed, no-check hockey game.

The victim had fallen to the ice when the woman rapped his leg with her hockey stick hard enough to leave a bruise and break the stick, reports the Idaho Mountain Express. "She definitely blew a gasket," the victim said.

Methane: from mines to market

PAONIA, Colo. - Methane is a dastardly gas to coal miners. It can suffocate or, if combusted, is quite explosive, and has killed perhaps thousands of miners in Colorado alone.

At the West Elk, a mine near Paonia, located west of Aspen and Crested Butte, methane wasn't a problem until about five years ago, when the coal near the surface was exhausted and shafts were dug farther underground. The new excavations unleashed the methane, requiring that ventilation shafts be drilled, to allow the gas to escape.

But that makes it a global problem. Methane is a greenhouse gas, far shorter lived in the atmosphere than the more common carbon dioxide, but with 23 times the heat-trapping properties. For that reason, many environmentalists believe that capturing methane from the West Elk and other coal mines is among the most important short-term actions in forestalling global warming.

The West Elk Mine alone emits an estimated 7 million cubic-feet of methane a year, and two other nearby mines emit just as much. Altogether, this represents 1.3 per cent of the total greenhouse gas footprint of Colorado.

"It's a major issue," says Steve Wolcott, the chairman of Western Slope Environmental Resource Council's Coal Committee. "It's also a major opportunity, a pretty easy way to make a big impact on the state's carbon footprint in one spot - and potentially make money doing it."

The way money could be made is by tapping the methane, which is a primary constituent of natural gas. The methane from the West Elk alone is enough to heat 39,000 houses or a city about the size of Grand Junction, Colo.

"There has to be a way to make the methane marketable, either through electricity that can be pumped back into the grid or as natural gas going to market," says Wolcott.

Something similar was done in Utah. There, the methane from the Aberdeen Mine, located near Price, has been captured and, after purification, introduced into pipelines that transport the gas to markets. The financing in that case was done by a triangle of partners, including the coal-mine owner, a gas company, and the City of Aspen and Pitkin County, which paid carbon off-set money in order to help make the finances work.

Noise squabble verging on feud

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. - Call it a squabble verging on a feud. Neighbours of The Pub, a bar in Crested Butte, say there's just too much racket. "I'm a partier, but I can't sleep through this," said Priscila Banks, who lives nearby. "And I can sleep through anything," she added.

Owners of The Pub insist they have mostly complied with the rules, which mandate noise be kept to 60 decibels or less. That, they say, is in line with the noise threshold specified in other resort towns. A creek that tumbles through the town, immediately behind the bar, is louder, says bar co-owner Chris Werderitch.

Peter Giannini, described by the Crested Butte News as a community gadfly, said viability of the core business district is at issue. Anybody living there "should expect to be subjected to more noise. There are tradeoffs living in that area, and increased noise is one of them. To make it harder for tourists to have fun is a mistake, especially in this economy."

Of course, there was a counter-argument to that: "Noise isn't the only way to have fun," said another neighbour, Cricket Farrington. "In fact, I'll bet if you lowered the decibels, people inside wouldn't even notice it."

The town council, reports the Crested Butte News , doesn't want to change any laws, but is leaning on the operators of The Pub to work out a solution with neighbours. "Now, go have a group hug out in the hallway," said Alan Bernholtz, the mayor.

Community gardening catching on

DURANGO, Colo. - Community gardening is catching on in Durango, in response to what officials believe is the poor economy as well as the persistent "buy local" message.

The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado now has 12 garden sites. As well, the local branch of an organization called the Urban Land Army is out to put green chilies and gladiolas in weedy lots and neglected back yards, reports the Durango Telegraph .

Katie Kelley, the founder of the local chapter, tells the newspaper that she started a garden while living in an apartment. "Eating your own food and sharing the harvest was so much fun. Once you eat something freshly picked, you can't go back to eating your food any other way."

Darrin Parmeter, a horticulture extension agent from Colorado's land-grant college, Colorado State University, tells the newspaper he gets 5 to 10 calls a week from people wanting to start a backyard garden.

Bison leg - Duuude!

DILLON, Colo. - Arapahoe Basin was among Colorado's first ski areas, opening in 1946. Then, for close to 60 years, very little changed.

In recent years the ski area is looking a lot more like your typical destination ski area. There is snowmaking, a new expansion area called Montezuma Bowl, and now a new mid-mountain restaurant, Black Mountain Lodge.

This is quite a change from the place whose mid-mountain dining consisted of hamburgers and hot dogs.

The Summit Daily News reports that the lodge recently hosted its first full-moon feast, the sort in which guests exchanged their coats at the door for shots of cinnamon amaretto.

The bison leg served for dinner was a hit all around, reports Kimberly Nicoletti, the Daily News reporter. "Duuude - it's really good," said a snowboarder on one side. "Excellent" and "delicious" raved an older couple.

Fire evacuation plans pushed

EAGLE, Colo. - It's not shaping up as a big year for wildfires in most mountain valleys of the West. But wildfire is never far from the thoughts of Barry Smith, the director of emergency preparedness for Eagle County.

His projects this year include evacuation planning for Eby Creek, a subdivision of several homes located amid a forest of piñon and juniper trees near Eagle, 30 miles west of Vail.

Planning for the eventuality of wildfires in Colorado is a relatively new thing. Smith, a firefighter since the mid-1970s, says even the 1994 death of 10 firefighters near Glenwood Springs failed to wake up people to dangers, even in towns just a few miles away, in Gypsum, Eagle and Vail.

What changed perceptions was 2002, says Smith. Among others elsewhere in the West, three major fires occurred that summer in Colorado: near Durango, again at Glenwood Springs, and biggest of all, the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver.

"The whole Eagle River Valley was shrouded in smoke for large parts of the summer, and when people are breathing smoke all the time, they get worried - because they don't know where the smoke is coming from," says Smith. "We were getting phone calls all the time."

After that big summer, Congress passed the Healthy Forests Initiative, which encourages - but does not mandate - wildfire protection planning. Even so, Eagle County and other county and town governments began planning for potential fires.

In Eagle County's case, the new regulations mandated defensible space planning in rural subdivisions.

Ironically, Hurricane Katrina pushed the planning. A directive from the Federal Emergency Management Administration offered grants, but insisted that to be eligible communities had to do evacuation planning. In mountain valleys, wildfires - not hurricanes - are the major risk.

Many mountain jurisdictions now have evacuation plans in place, among them Grand Lake, at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Vail.

One of Smith's major projects this year is to produce an evacuation plan for Eby Creek Mesa. Several years ago, even after the Storm King deaths in 1994 and then the summer of smoke in 2002, residents hotly resisted plans to thin trees in and around the subdivision. They were, however, reminded that their house catching fire then endangered houses of their neighbours.

If a fire does occur, states Smith, residents can only be asked to leave. "I have found nothing in the Colorado statutes that says we can force people to evacuate," he says.

However, beetle-killed forests have served as a reminder of vulnerabilities that always existed. There is, says Smith, a greater acceptance for the need to thin and remove trees. Beaver Creek, which originally opposed a wildfire protection plan, now brags about the plan in its marketing.